David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The Moral Equivalent of War


I find it difficult to get my head round the fighting in Aleppo. Are the great walls and the citadel and musty old Barons Hotel where Lawrence of Arabia signed the visitors’ book about to be flattened? Such destruction would be a loss for humankind comparable to the destruction some years ago of Sarajevo where all sorts of institutions including museums and libraries were hit. How is such a fate to be avoided? These cases, and many just like them, are genuine tests of strength, with winners and losers. So great are the rewards, so punishing is failure, that those engaged resort to extremes. Scruples are inhibiting, no more than a sign of weakness.

William James, the philosophical brother of the novelist Henry James, proposed a solution: We needed what he called in a fine phrase, “the moral equivalent of war.” Obviously there was no moral equivalent that could have saved Sarajevo or Aleppo. It’s all about the killing of your enemy and the disposal of him on your terms. That’s been going on in this part of the world for centuries. “Once in Aleppo a base Turk I slew,” Shakespeare makes Othello say in a version of “him or me.”

The quite widespread view that the Olympic Games are a moral equivalent of war seems untenable. That torch parade round the country where the Games are held is a legacy from Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer, the impresario who delivered just what his patron wanted. There is something totalitarian about it, and about the conception of purpose-built new stadiums and columns of athletes marching in step under their national flag. What on earth is the point of national teams with national flags when the Games exist to discover the individual with the top performance? Instead of being the moral equivalent of war, this is more like war by other means.  The East Germans used to be outstanding at this, giving the impression that they were a power to be reckoned with. At the moment China heads the table with many more medals than the United States, and millions will be drawing the conclusion that the former is winning a war that is very real though undeclared, while the latter is losing it.



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